Auto quality rises, but new models hit some bumps

Vehicle quality continues to get better and better, a study released Wednesday by J.D. Power and Associates shows, but automakers still get tripped up when introducing new models.

The annual Initial Quality Study, announced at an Automotive Press Association luncheon, shows overall quality up, with about 75% of brands showing significant improvements over last year. Porsche kept its No. 1 rank for a third-consecutive year, but Infiniti unseated Lexus for the No. 2 position.

The study asked 81,500 buyers and lessees to rate defects and design flaws on their new 2008 cars, trucks or SUVs after 90 days of ownership. The industry average was 118 problems per 100, or 1.18 problems per car, down from 125, or 1.25, last year.

Most brands showed improvement, particularly carmakers with models in at least their second year on the market. Those that saw big quality declines had new models, such as Scion. It fell from 11th to 27th for the 2008 model year, in which it launched a redesigned xB and introduced the xD.

Jeep ranked last, with 167 problems per 100.

One common issue: Consumers often are befuddled by the new technologies being piled into cars. The most-cited technological culprits are voice-recognition software that doesn't recognize the driver's voice and on-board wireless phone systems that don't work with drivers' phones.

"Issues with difficult-to-use audio and entertainment controls and voice-command-recognition failure are among the top 10 problems most frequently reported by customers," said David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power.

Automakers need to keep working on such technology, Sargent said. "Consumers want it, but with it comes an inherent risk," he said. "It can introduce new problems."

In past years, many buyers complained that their vehicles got worse gas mileage than they expected, but such complaints are down, Sargent said, thanks to new rules on how automakers calculate fuel efficiency. "People have more of a realistic idea of their fuel consumption," Sargent says.